News

How San Diego's Homeless Community Is Reacting to the Recent Homeless Murders

One man worried someone would copy the killer; another heard a rumor that someone was going around with a baseball bat, targeting homeless people.
July 21, 2016, 4:00am

Attorney Dan Tandon and Jon David Guerrero, whose face is obscured at the instruction of a judge, at Guerrero's arraignment hearing this week. Photo by John Gibbons/San Diego Union-Tribune

On Tuesday afternoon, reporters packed a San Diego courtroom for the arraignment of Jon David Guerrero, the man charged with brutally attacking five homeless people in San Diego this month, killing three and seriously injuring at least two others.

Following his arrest last week, San Diego police chief Shelly Zimmerman told reporters she was confident Guerrero was the man responsible for "these evil acts." But in court, Guerrero, 39, didn't enter a plea. His attorney, deputy public defender Dan Tandon, asked that the arraignment be delayed for two weeks—a request the judge granted.

Advertisement

"San Diego deserves to know the truth and the whole story in this case," Tandon told reporters. "And this story begins many years before July 3—years before the first loss of life in this case."

Tandon declined to elaborate.

On July 3, police allege that Guerrero killed Angelo De Nardo, a 53-year-old homeless man, and set his body on fire under a freeway overpass in San Diego's Bay Park neighborhood. The same week, 41-year-old Shawn Longley was found dead at a park from blunt-force trauma to his upper torso and 23-year-old Dionicio Derek Vahidy died after he was found with severe wounds on his upper body and a burning towel on his head. Guerrero was charged for the murders.

Two other victims survived: an unidentified homeless man whose attack under a freeway overpass last Friday morning led to Guerrero's arrest, and 61-year-old Manuel Mason, who was found in the city's Midway District with wounds to his upper body. Leean Rasko, a longtime friend of Mason's who's visited him multiple times in the hospital, told VICE the attack left Mason permanently blind. Rasko described Mason as a gruff but intelligent man who spoke several languages and always made sure she was safe when she walked to a nearby trolley stop to get to work.

The attacks, which were scattered around the city, have unnerved San Diego's homeless community. Despite Guerrero's arrest, more than half a dozen homeless people VICE talked to this week remained wary.

Advertisement

Ray, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he worried that "someone's going to start copying" the killer. He was walking with his wife, Beth, along 17th Street in downtown San Diego's East Village neighborhood, a gritty area that the homeless refer to as "the bottoms" due to its concentrated street population. A man who was packing up his tent across the street said he'd heard someone was going around with a baseball bat, targeting homeless people.

All but one of the attacks happened in the parts of the city where homeless folks go to get away from the drugs, violence, and police sweeps common to the bottoms. Dionicio Vahidy, for instance, was found on a tree-lined path leading to idyllic Pantoja Park, near the San Diego Bay. On Monday morning, several homeless people lingered in the park, sitting on benches or in the shade under a tree. Debra, who declined to give her last name, described the park as the "safest place to be," despite what happened to Vahidy.

A few benches down, though, Frank Pulicchio disagreed. He said he normally sleeps in or near the park with his girlfriend, but was so shaken by the attacks, he decided to put her up in a motel for a few days.

"It's not been good," he said, choking up a bit.

San Diego's Pantoja Park, where many homeless people go to escape the the drugs, violence, and police sweeps in other parts of the city. Photo by the author

There were seven homeless deaths classified as homicides in 2015, according to the San Diego County medical examiner. That's far fewer than the deaths from heart disease or overdoses, but the recent attacks have underscored the city's lack of emergency resources for its large homeless population. Roughly 2,700 people sleep on the city's streets each night, according to a recent report by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, and shelter beds are always filled. Before Guerrero's arrest, the best advice police and service providers could give folks was to stick together and stay in well-lit places.

And that's what Ray and Beth did—until, Ray said, "a bunch of cops would show up and tell us to leave."

Advertisement

VICE spoke to people who also said the recent attacks have highlighted tension between the homeless and police, especially in East Village, where the city has been conducting weekly encampment sweeps.

Chris Nafis, a pastor at the Living Nazarene Church in East Village, told VICE anxiety still lingers among the homeless who attend his services, exacerbated by an overall increase in violence and crime in the area. He described a gang fight that broke out the other night near the church, in front of a homeless encampment.

"The violence could easily turn toward them, and they have nowhere to go," he said. "If the police do show up, they use collective punishment, and everybody's sort of afraid they're going to be on the wrong end of the police."

Guerrero, who has been charged with three counts of murder and two counts of premeditated attempted murder, is currently being held without bail on the sixth floor of San Diego's Central Jail, where inmates with mental illness are housed. Court records show he has a long criminal history with multiple convictions for burglary and grand theft. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to pushing a homeless woman off her bike and stealing it, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Because the case involved multiple murders, Deputy District Attorney Makenzie Harvey said prosecutors could seek the death penalty.

Follow Kelly Davis on Twitter.